Looking back on that night, there were a number of things Ricky Bobby had and had not expected to happen at Larry Dennit’s annual holiday party.
For instance, he had fully expected Larry Dennit’s wife to show up three sheets to the wind, and had not been disappointed. He’d been completely unsurprised when Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle had gotten into a dispute over the previous year’s Bristol wreck, and even less surprised when the argument turned physical, with Harvick clocking Biffle with a tray of crab cakes and shoving his head into the punch bowl. And he’d barely batted an eye--though it had been damn funny--when Tony Stewart threw potato salad at them both before breaking into the fray himself out of the sheer thrill of kicking somebody’s ass. (Rumor had it that the anger management was no longer working.)
None of these things had even fazed Ricky in the least. In his line of business, incidents of this nature had come to be commonplace, everyday occurrences.
What he had not been expecting, however, was what transpired between the Secret Santa gift exchange and Christmas caroling. He’d been sipping punch by the Christmas tree when it all went down.
“Look, Ricky,” Cal had said with such urgency, Ricky had no choice but to do so. He watched with mild disdain (that was most certainly not jealousy) as Jeff Gordon maneuvered Jean Girard beneath the mistletoe. He saw the stunned, outright dismayed look on the French driver’s face as he took a hasty step backward. And lastly, but certainly not least, he saw Gregory Schmaranzer-Girard come from somewhere out of the left side of the picture and slap Jean across the face. He saw Gregory fly in one direction, saw Jean storm off in the other.
Most baffling to Ricky--and quite possibly, the most unexpected thing of all--was the way he, himself, had reacted. As soon as he’d seen Jean beeline for the exit, his first recourse had been to shove his glass of punch at Cal and take off after him.
The winter wind was merciless, ripping at Ricky’s coat sleeve as he stepped out into the cold December night.
Jean was standing on the far side of the parking lot bordering the woods, leaning against the guardrail, a forlorn portrait of defeat. Compelled, Ricky jogged across the parking lot toward him.
“Hey Frenchie!” Jean turned warily, the look on his face one of a man sedately guarded.
“What is it, Ricky Bobby?” he inquired, a subtle ‘don’t fuck with me’ underscoring his tone and betraying his calm demeanor. “I am not in the mood for games, as you might imagine.”
“Oh, no. Of course not,” answered Ricky quickly. “I was just--” At that moment, it occurred to Ricky that he wasn’t quite sure what he was aiming to accomplish. “I--” His thought fell flat with a sigh, and he met Jean’s eyes with all the sincerity he had. “Look, I saw what happened. I guess I just wanted to make sure you’re all right, is all.”
The Frenchman wavered but a moment before composing himself.
“Oui,” he answered. “I will be fine, Ricky Bobby. Do not worry about me. Go back inside, enjoy the party.”
“Only if you come back inside with me.”
“Non. I’m not going back in there. I cannot.”
“Jean, it’s freezing out here,” protested Ricky. “Look at you, you’re shivering.”
“I assure you, Ricky. I am fine.” His insistence was somewhat unconvincing, as a gust of wind rushed over the two of them from behind, and Jean wrapped his arms tightly around himself and shuddered against the cold. “Sacré bleu.”
“Right, Jean.” Ricky arched an eyebrow at the Frenchman. “Okay. Tell you what. If you won’t go inside where it’s warm--” He paused. “I’m guessing your wife took the car?”
“Yes, I am afraid so.”
“Here.” Ricky fished in his coat pocket and pulled out his car keys, handing them to Jean. “If you won’t go inside, at least go sit in my car and turn the heat on. It’s the Chevelle down at the end of this row.”
“One condition,” declared Jean, regarding the keys in his hand thoughtfully. He bit his lip and met Ricky’s gaze, a certain air of bashful hopefulness exuding from his own. “Would you sit with me?” Ricky’s answer came without hesitation.
* * * *
They slid into the backseat of Ricky’s race-ready Chevelle, heat cranking at full blast. Jean was shivering without shame now, huddling against the leather as warmth worked its way in.
“Man, it’s cold,” remarked Ricky. “It’s colder than a polar bear’s butt crack, I tell you what.” Jean gave Ricky a quizzical look as the latter leaned forward, reaching to retrieve a plush throw blanket from the front seat. “The seats get cold,” he offered as he handed the blanket to Jean. The Frenchman wrapped one end around himself and gave Ricky the other half.
“I appreciate your kindness, Ricky,” he said with sincerity. “Truly, I do.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout it.” Jean smiled serenely, and Ricky felt his stomach quite suddenly and inexplicably turn to jelly. He wrung his hands together nervously, only to find that his palms were sweating. “So,” he ventured, somewhat uneasily. “You, uh, wanna talk about what happened?”
“What is there to say?” Jean shrugged his shoulders feebly. “My best friend kisses me under the mistletoe, and my husband speeds off, in my car, in a fit of jealous rage.”
“Guy’s got a lotta nerve,” grumbled Ricky. “He’s lucky he ain’t my wife. You know--” Presently, a thought occurred to Ricky, and he verbalized it as it came to him. “I never knew Jeff Gordon was your best friend.” Come to think about it, really, there was a lot Ricky found he didn’t know about Jean Girard.
“I do not make it, how you say, common knowledge. I am a very private person. Jeff was there for me, offering moral support to me, when Gregory and I first started having marital problems.”
Marital problems? The revelation hit Ricky like a stone in the pit of his stomach. On the surface, Gregory and Jean, as a couple, seemed more solid, more grounded, than most couples Ricky had laid eyes on.
“Gosh,” Ricky said apologetically. “I didn’t know you and Gregory were havin’ trouble.”
“It’s rather a long story, as it were,” stated Jean, with a dismissive wave of one elegant hand. “Gregory is admittedly not the most secure of people. Since we have been here in America, he has accused me of infidelity, of keeping men on the side. Ironically, I came to find that it was Gregory who was having an affair. Following the exposé, we have since separated; he departed and went to join his lover. Recently, we took steps to try and make things work, but judging by tonight’s events--” Jean threw his hands up animatedly. “C’est la vie.”
“Jean, I’m real sorry.”
“What can you do? These things happen.” Jean sighed gravely. “People lie, they cheat, they fall out of love just as quickly as they say ‘I do.’ You see it happening all the time, but you never expect it will happen to you.”
Abruptly, Jean sniffled and dragged the back of his hand across his cheek, and it was then that Ricky noticed the tears glittering in Jean’s dark eyes, flowing freely down his face.
Oh, sweet baby Jesus.
“Hey, come here. It’s all right.” Before Ricky could stop himself, his arms had wrapped around Jean’s slender waist and drawn him in close, holding him tight. A shaky sigh escaped from Jean as he settled himself against Ricky, his head finding the crook of the other man’s shoulder. All at once, Ricky found his hands trembling, his heart pounding in his chest, and he couldn’t help but wonder if holding Jean like this wasn’t more dangerous than driving blindfolded, or with a cougar in the car, or something just as equally perilous. “It’s all right,” he repeated, more to himself than to Jean, it seemed.
“Where is it,” Jean wondered aloud, “that people like you and I seem to go wrong, Ricky Bobby?”
“I’ll be damned if I know,” Ricky answered with a chuckle. “I’ve gone wrong so many damn times, I guess I’m still waiting to go right.”
“Do you believe in love?”
“Sure, I do.”
“When you figure it out, you must tell me.”
“You know, he doesn’t deserve you.” These were words that Ricky had not expected to say, words that surprised both himself and Jean.
Jean sat up and eyed Ricky curiously, hands on his shoulders.
“Ricky,” he asked suddenly, “what possessed you to come out here after me?”
“I care about you.”
Jean smiled and leaned back against Ricky, who embraced him again without faltering.
“You know, tonight was hardly what I was expecting it to be.”
“I think I know what you mean.” He ran a hand absently up and down Jean’s back. “You…gonna need a ride back home, or somethin’?”
“Perhaps,” answered Jean coyly. “Just…not now.”
They lapsed into silence, Jean reclining in Ricky’s arms in a way that felt too familiar, and Ricky starting to wonder if he wasn’t already in over his head. A thousand questions whirled in Ricky’s mind like the snowflakes now dancing across the frozen windshield--each one completely different, though significant.
Something Jean had said kept ringing out in Ricky’s head, transfixed to his memory. When you figure it out, he’d said, let me know. While Ricky pondered, with Jean sighing contentedly in his arms, he had to wonder what sort of implications this night might have for the both of them.
Since Ricky was a boy, he had heard it said that the answer to a man’s question was, most often, the answer that was least obvious. Ricky had to wonder, offhandedly, if the answer to both his and Jean’s question--where do I go right--wasn’t the one that was right in front of the both of them all along. Tonight, he knew, he wasn’t going to figure it out. He would stay here in this dark corner of the parking lot, watching the snow fall by the dim light of the streetlamp overhead, and hold Jean as long as was humanly possible. Eventually, he would drive Jean back to his estate and drive himself home.
Afterward, he would sit by the fireplace, pour himself a stiff drink, and think.
He would think about all the things that had happened, that he had been expecting.
He would pour another drink, and think of all the things that he had not.
But most of all, he would mull over every possible way of telling Jean Girard that he might very well be starting to fall for him.